For the two of you that haven’t heard of MySpace, it is a social networking website, where users can post photos and profiles, send messages to other users, create groups, plan events, and check each other out. Sites like FaceBook, Friendster, and LiveJournal are similar. I’m not a MySpace user, but I did create a FaceBook profile recently, just so I could look around. (Incidentally, I was surprised to see how many of the users were “Class of ’10” — it seems only yesterday that I was a spry, cutting-edge Napster-user, and now I’m certainly the oldest FaceBook visitor on the planet. ) The rise of networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook has many social implications, but one in particular interests me: what impact will such sites have on the nascent Mormon identity of our youth? More specifically, how much will their Mormonism figure into their public self-presentation, and what effects might this have?
For me, and perhaps some of you, this would be only an academic question, even assuming we were MySpace users. I grew up in Salt Lake City, and I’ve got BYU on my resume, so I get the “So, you’re Mormon?” question very quickly after meeting new people, whatever the setting. But for many Mormon youth that are living outside of Utah/Idaho and have no obvious connection to recognizably Mormon institutions, the growing importance and ubiquity of these social networking websites pose a interesting dilemma. Do they put their religion in their profile? If so, do they say “Mormon” or “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”? Do they link as “friends” their “church-only” friends? Do they post pictures of youth conference? For returned missionaries, how do they characterize those 18 or 24 months? “Service”? “Proselyting”? “Mormon Mission”? Does it matter? I think it might.
Unlike real world interactions, where certain aspects of your identity are naturally emphasized or de-emphasized depending on the context, on sites like MySpace you have one profile that everyone can see — real-world acquaintances like a bishop, friends, and teachers, but also random others, like friends of friends, potential dates, and even potential employers. Rather than framing an identity based on context, you are are forced to present a static self-description to any and all comers. Aside from not telling certain people that you have an online presence (or vainly hoping Google fails them) you’re always already outed to all. Your Bishop will know you love death metal, yes. But more importantly, the cute girl you met at the party might write you off because you’re Mormon before you’ve even had a chance. I don’t think it is exaggerating to say that no other generation has had to stake out an identity to their peers so early, and so publicly. What are the MySpace Mormons to do?